Omaha senator answers Obamacare critics

2013-08-22T03:50:00Z 2013-09-24T10:57:05Z Omaha senator answers Obamacare criticsBy DON WALTON / Lincoln Journal Star JournalStar.com

OMAHA — Nebraskans have been hearing a steady drumbeat of criticism of Obamacare from members of Nebraska's congressional delegation who are back home this month.

State Sen. Jeremy Nordquist believes there's another side of the story that Nebraskans need to hear as they weigh the pros and cons of the national health care reform law.

It's the side they used to be able to hear from Democratic Sen. Ben Nelson before the Washington delegation became all-Republican this year.

Nordquist, who has been a leader in championing health care reform as a member of the Legislature, says hundreds of thousands of Nebraskans already are benefiting from the new law, and those benefits appear to be ignored or dismissed by critics of Obamacare.

Children with pre-existing health conditions no longer can be denied health care insurance; the same guarantee for adults comes next.

Preventive health care services must be provided cost-free by insurers; insurance companies no longer will be able to drop people because they are sick or have reached lifetime benefit limits; adult children under 26 already are guaranteed access to coverage in their parents' family health insurance packages; Medicare prescription drug benefits have been expanded.

More than 40,000 Nebraskans have received rebates from insurance companies that failed to meet the new mandate that at least 80 percent of their premium dollars be devoted to health care costs.

Once Obamacare is fully implemented, "it can be beneficial to nearly every Nebraska family," Nordquist said during an interview over coffee in downtown Omaha.

But are there problems and snags and some unintended consequences that need to be fixed?  

Yes, Nordquist said, there are.

"Certainly, there are issues with the law that need to be addressed," he said, just as there have been with every major policy change, including Medicare and Social Security and Medicaid.

"Some valid concerns require statutory change," Nordquist said.

"But too many people are grandstanding now. They need to get off their soapbox and sit down with their colleagues and resolve those issues.

"This is not a political debate anymore; it's the law."

In Nebraska, Nordquist said, "we have a federal delegation and a governor who are not willing to engage in serious dialogue" over how to fix parts of the law that may not be working well or as intended and how to make the law work best for Nebraskans."

Gov. Dave Heineman has rejected establishment of a state-structured health care insurance exchange, leaving that role in the hands of the federal government, Nordquist said. 

The exchange is designed to promote marketplace competition that brings the consumer's costs down, he said. Subsidies would assist people whose income level makes it difficult to meet the individual mandate to purchase insurance, he said.

The governor has stood in the way of state participation in expansion of Medicaid coverage to a new pool largely composed of low-income, uninsured, working Nebraskans, Nordquist said.

Neither of those decisions is in the best interests of Nebraskans, Nordquist said. 

The Medicaid expansion proposal is deadlocked in the Legislature and will be revisited by state senators in 2014.

Nordquist said he and state Sen. Kathy Campbell of Lincoln have been working this summer to consider options that might include "some private mix" in extending Medicaid coverage.

In the meantime, Nordquist said, the state is turning its back on generous federal health care funding support that would help build the medical infrastructure in Nebraska, reduce pressure on private health insurance premiums, provide needed health care to uninsured Nebraskans, secure rural hospitals and save lives.

"My concern is that we are not doing everything we can as a state to get the best deal for Nebraska," Nordquist said.

The health care reform law "can be beneficial to nearly every Nebraska family," he said.

"Those with private insurance, those with pre-existing conditions, early retirees or near the retirement age, low-income working Nebraskans who cannot find the money to buy private health care insurance."

The high cost of uncompensated care in hospital emergency rooms results in an estimated $1,100 additional premium cost for family health insurance, Nordquist said.

"What's being forgotten in the political debate is where our health care system was before the law was passed," he said.

Double-digit annual increases in the cost of health care insurance was pricing more and more people out of the market, Nordquist said.

That inflation in insurance costs already has slowed, he said, and cost containment measures have had an impact. The new emphasis on preventive care will deliver savings in both health care costs and insurance premium costs in the future, he said.

Unyielding political opposition to the new law and a refusal to cooperatively address its flaws represents "ideology overpowering common sense," Nordquist said.

Reach Don Walton at 402-473-7248 or at dwalton@journalstar.com.

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